William Madges, chair of the University’s department of theology; James Buchanan, director for the Edward B. Brueggeman center for dialogue; Rabbi Abie Ingber, executive director of the Hillel Jewish Student Center of Cincinnati; and Yaffa Eliach, former Brueggeman chair and founder of the Shtetl Foundation in New York, are traveling to the Vatican to present the pontiff with an overview of the project, titled “A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People,” and to offer it as a gift honoring his 85th birthday on May 18, 2005.
Madges says the group is hoping to get several artifacts from the pope while they are in Rome. The exhibition—a partnership between the University, the Hillel center and the Shtetl Foundation, with major funding from both the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati and the University—takes its name from a phrase in the pope's 1993 commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. It features artifacts, photographs and videos documenting the pope’s history with the Jewish people. There is also an interactive area where visitors can write prayers to be taken to the Western Wall.
The exhibition’s world premiere is May 18, 2005, in the A.B. Cohen Center galleries on the Xavier campus. The exhibition then moves to the John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., where a replica of a portion of the display is becoming a permanent fixture. From there, it is touring Catholic and Jewish universities around the United States.
“A Blessing to One Another” is the brainchild of Eliach, a Holocaust survivor and professor emeritus of Judaic studies at Brooklyn College in New York. Through her research in Western Europe, Eliach became fascinated with the pope’s historical ties to the Jews—John Paul II grew up in a largely Jewish apartment building, a Jewish family helped raise him after the death of his mother, he regularly appeared in theater productions with his Jewish friends, and his closest childhood friend, a Jewish boy named Jerzy Kluger, lives near him today in Rome. The more Eliach learned, the more she realized the story needed to be told.
“I felt it would be wonderful, because I believe so much in togetherness, to make an exhibit,” she says.
University President Michael J. Graham, S.J., says the project is appropriate for Xavier on a number of levels.
“It gives us great pride, as a Jesuit and Catholic institution, to begin to celebrate now the legacy and the achievements of Pope John Paul II,” Graham says. “His outreach to the Jewish people is one of the epoch-making accomplishments of his papacy, one that will be remembered long into the future, for it has changed forever the tenor of the relationship between Catholics and Jews. The story there to be told is not only one that involves formal visits and diplomatic relations, but is grounded in the early and deeply moving story of the Holy Father himself, and that very human story is by itself a story worth telling.
“Moreover, because Xavier University seeks to be known as a champion of both interfaith relations and dialogue, it is especially significant for us to be involved with the project with our collaborators, the Shtetl Foundation and the Hillel center here in Cincinnati. Our hope is that our interfaith collaboration to tell to a wider world the story of the pope’s own interfaith commitment will itself teach others about the importance of dialogue and collaboration across gulfs that may look as wide and divisive to us today as that gulf between Catholics and Jews may have looked 50 or 150 years ago.”
Ingber, who lost his grandparents and two uncles in the Holocaust, sees the exhibition as near miraculous.
“To know that we literally have gone from my grandparents' understanding of what the church represented in their lives to their grandson meeting with the pope and celebrating in the building of an exhibit that recognizes and honors this incredible, unique and changed relationship between the Catholic church and the Jewish community,” he says. “I don’t know how to characterize that as anything less than a miracle, and I place the positive responsibility for that sea change in the peaceful hands and blessings of John Paul II.
"Throughout the world, he has built a bridge that we hope will only continue to be strengthened and will carry the foot traffic of people committed to peace and brotherhood for generations to come,” Ingber says. “This exhibition tries to anchor that bridge as firmly as possible.”
Planning for the exhibition gained momentum after a meeting with the John Paul II Cultural Center. The center is providing artifacts. Former President Jimmy Carter agreed to be a member of the project’s advisory board.
“This exhibit sends a signal that we’re doing the kinds of things a Catholic university and a department of theology should be doing, namely trying to identify projects that fit with the Catholic spirit,” Madges says.
The project also fits naturally into the Brueggeman center’s focus on dialogue.
“We’re trying to make it more than just an exhibit,” says Buchanan. “Our hope is that it will be an experience that has a spiritual dimension to it as well as stimulate people to begin to think more deeply about and engage more actively in interreligious dialogue.”
Graham says the University is committed to raising at least $100,000 from private sources for the project.
“The Jewish Foundation has stepped forward to match this amount and has issued an additional challenge to us to raise even more—and this we will energetically do,” he says.